The New North. The World in 2050 by Laurence Smith is an excellent, well-written analysis of the four mega-trends that have shaped the past few centuries and will continue to shape the future: demography (population growth and aging); the growing demand on natural resources and natural services; globalization and climate change. These four forces will have a dramatic impact on our planet, particularly its northern latitudes, which includes part of the U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Iceland. As Smith writes in the introduction "the northern quarter of our planet's latitudes will undergo tremendous transformations over the course of this century, making them a place of increased human activity, higher strategic value, and greater economic importance than today."
Smith is not trying to predict the future. He extrapolates a number of dominant trends and analyses their impact. At the outset Smith lists four assumptions that guide his analysis: 1. No silver bullets, that is, no radical technological breakthroughs; 2. No World War III; 3. No hidden genies, like global pandemics or meteorite impacts (which is not to say that none of this can happen, but that the likelihood is small) and 4. The models are good enough, they are not perfect, they are based on assumptions that may not be entirely valid, but the outcomes are broadly correct.
Throughout the book Smith maintains a largely agnostic, value-free analysis. He does not judge whether globalization or climate change is good or bad. There will be winners and losers. It is only when we have analyzed possible scenarios that we can judge which one we would prefer. As Smith writes towards the end:
"No doubt we humans will survive anything, even if polar bears and Arctic cod do not. Perhaps we could support nine hundred billion if we choose a world with no large animals, pod apartments, genetically engineered to algae to eat, and desalinized toilet water to drink. Or perhaps nine hundred million if we choose a wilder planet, generously restocked with the creatures of our design. To me, the more important question is not of capacity, but of desire: What kind of world do we want?"
Of course, this assumes a brotherhood of man. I may be a dreamer but I don't believe the world will ever live as one. People's wants may also be contradictory. I for one enjoy traveling but I am aware that in doing so I contribute to global warming. I'm aware that in visiting remote, unscathed regions I contribute to their decline and that by making and publishing photos I may inadvertently encourage others to visit the same region, thus accelerating the decline.
The New North. The World in 2050 is a fascinating read and I can highly recommend it if you like to read beyond today's headlines. Smith points out that the inhabitants of Arctic regions are not the hapless victims of climate change as they are often portrayed in the media. He also points out that, despite global warming, the Arctic will remain a cold place for much of the year. One of the most pressing and still underreported problems in the coming decades in various parts of the world is freshwater scarcity. I know that this is not a popular view these days, but I believe government subsidies in many countries have greatly distorted the market for water.
2050 is not that far off. I remember the time when the year 2000 sounded like science fiction. I hope to be around to see what the world will look in 2050.
Photos of the environmental impact of oil sand extraction in Alberta, Canada